The main directive was to work with what you have. Look in your closet. Think monochrome. Focus on blacks and grays. Do not grab for the pastels, patterns or the form fitting. These would be the rules of engagement for an afternoon of training as a PEM docent for the upcoming exhibition Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion, opening Nov. 16.
Chief curator Lynda Hartigan, who has been working closely with the Kyoto Costume Institute, asked the crowd to stand. “Let me see,” she said. “You guys really got into it. Nice materials. Let’s talk textiles. Wow, even the guys got into it.”
When asked if this was a difficult task, Laurie Hark, a docent of seven years, said, “Not for me. I wear black every day.”
“We’re the best dressed people in Salem,” someone else commented.
Linda Haley remembered a baggy black dress — made from hemp — that she bought in Manhattan 25 years ago and hadn’t worn in a while. It had been in the trunk of her car for three years. But when she saw the featured clothing in this exhibition, she realized she had just the thing to wear.
Being a docent, helps keep her “current,” Haley said, and on her toes. For instance, she now knows a little about such things as manga and anime, Japanese comic books and animation, which are highlighted in the exhibition. Our upcoming evening party, PEM/PM, celebrates both on November 21, with an attempt to create the world’s largest manga.
These media exports are part of the Cool Japan movement, which has been popular since 2002 when a foreign policy essay came out called “Japan’s Gross National Cool.” Since then, the Japanese government has gotten behind this concept of a national image overhaul, pledging to back it with $500 million. Last summer, the Japan Times published an article about the Japanese government embrace of Cool Japan and their hope that it’s “a post-manufacturing path to global relevance.” A design movement built around cute cartoon characters and a cutesy style of dress has made ambassadors of those in the fashion and media industries.
The Japan Times piece was written by Roland Kelts, a lecturer at the University of Tokyo and author of the highly regarded Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. Kelts will be leading an engaging conversation during PEM/PM.
But before the colorful designs of Cool Japan, there was black and variations of black. Why monochromatic? Because, says Hartigan, it forces the eye to focus on the clothing and not the body. “I finally understand why I wear black,” she said, with a smile.
This is thanks to designers like Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, who reshaped fashion in the early 1980s. They questioned the Western notion of beauty that has historically been tight fitting, curvy and perfect. It was the first time non-Western designers changed how European and American designers looked at fashion.
Part of the fashion movement in Japan was redefining itself post World War II, explained Hartigan. Rips and tears in the designs could be seen as damage from bombs.
Part of the exhibition focuses on shadows. “We think of the shadow as nothing,” said Hartigan. The shadow is a space, the place between dark and light. “The space between the clothing and the body,” she said, “is a very dynamic place.”
For more on Hartigan’s thoughts on the exhibition, see this recent Improper Bostonian piece that breaks down the concepts behind Future Beauty with three different garments.
Listen to Radio Boston’s interview with Hartigan as she takes NPR’s Sacha Pfeiffer through the exhibition.